Ode to the home theater PC

I dove into the wonderful world of home theater PCs more than two and a half years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. Seriously, not even a glance. Nothing beats Winamp plugins on a big screen, and using the system as a personal video recorder has fundamentally changed my relationship with television.


What’s impressed me the most about my home theater PC experience is the fact that, apart from swapping out the motherboard thanks to a busted capacitor, I haven’t had to touch the system. It’s running on relatively modest hardware—a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of memory, GeForce FX 5600 graphics, generic DVD burner, 250GB Hitachi SATA drive, WinTV PVR-250 tuner, and a cheap Envy24PT-based audio card—and it’s been rock solid for years running 24/7. In fact, the system has been so stable that I’m a little scared to mess with it. An Audigy2 has been sitting on the shelf for a couple of months now just waiting to grant the system DVD-Audio support, but I’m hesitant to upset the delicate balance that has kept the rig so reliable for years.


Of course, I’m going to have to upgrade eventually. HDTV beckons, and sooner or later, I’ll start all over with dual tuners and more horsepower. There are some things that won’t be changing, though. ATI’s Remote Wonder is a godsend, and it’ll follow me wherever my home theater PC travels take me. The remote’s programmable nature makes it easy to adapt to different applications, and I can’t live without the Winamp plugin. In fact, I can’t live without Winamp. The interface all but requires a high definition TV, but the visualization plugins make it all worthwhile regardless of whether you’re stone cold sober or in an intoxicated trance.


I’ll probably stick with Zalman’s passive water cooling setup, too. It’s been leak-free and whisper quiet for years, and that’s gone a long way towards warming me to the idea of water flowing around inside a PC. Of course, passive water cooling isn’t the most economical path to quiet computing, but in my experience, it’s easily the most silent. Once you’ve experienced near silence in the living room, it’s hard to live with even marginally higher noise levels.


That, and the Reserator’s giant blue phallus of a radiator tower makes one heck of a conversation piece.


Suffice to say that I’m completely sold on the home theater PC concept. I’ve played with TiVo and various set top DVRs, but the flexibility of a fully functional PC is hard to beat, especially when you don’t need particularly extravagant hardware. Home theater PCs need not be complicated for more casual users, either. I built up a box for my parents a while back and I’m not sure they even watch live TV anymore. In fact, they use the system so much that they’re already considering expanding its hard drive capacity beyond the existing 500GB. If that isn’t a testament to the glorious potential of a home theater PC, I don’t know what is.

Comments closed
    • IntelMole
    • 13 years ago

    When you do get around to doing that HDTV HTPC (thank god for abbreviations), would it make sense to do it as a sort of “how-to” blog? I’m interested in seeing how much time and effort would be involved…

    Thanks,
    -Mole

      • Dissonance
      • 13 years ago

      I have a few projects that I’m likely to tackle before the HD HTPC build, so it’ll probably be a while.

      The real time an effort is selecting the right mix of parts and software. The BeyondTV builds I’ve done with hardware that I know works well have been quick and easy–next to no time on top of your average PC build to set up the HTPC stuff.

    • Flying Fox
    • 13 years ago

    Your parents, are they somewhat tech-capable? At least they can program the VCR and stuff right? I wonder for people who don’t even know how to program the VCR, whether HTPC is still a good fit for those.

    Did you get them the ATI remote or those super duper Harmony ones?

      • Dissonance
      • 13 years ago

      They’re reasonably computer-literate, but I have them running a combination of BeyondTV and Beyond Media, so their setup is pretty easy to use. It’s a heck of a lot easier than programming a VCR.

      For simplicity’s sake, and because they don’t really venture outside Snapstream’s software, I set them up with Snapstream’s Firefly remote. Seems to be working well for them, but the programmability and arbitrary mouse control falls well short of the Remote Wonder.

    • Vrock
    • 13 years ago

    Diss, do you play around with pixel mapping and/or video post processing on your box? And what kind of television are you using with your setup?

      • Dissonance
      • 13 years ago

      Haven’t played around with post processing much, mostly for lack of time.

      I’m running the system through the VGA input on a Samsung 42″ HD Plasma… which was one heck of an upgrade over the 20″ TV I milked for years and years past its prime.

        • Vrock
        • 13 years ago

        Over VGA? I assume the FX 5600 doesn’t have a DVI port?

        When you build the HDTV HTPC, please blog it.

        A 58″ plasma is in my future. One good thing about 1080p screens is that 720p screens are dropping in price.

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